Michigan families fight to see seniors amid COVID-19, even in hospice care

Fears of COVID-19 have shut down visitation in long-term care facilities across Michigan — even, at times, in hospice. (Shutterstock image)

Late-stage Alzheimer’s disease has switched off nearly all of her mother’s memories — that’s cruel enough. Darlyn Townsend is now learning to accept that her mother is in hospice, too.

But the fact that Townsend can’t hold her 86-year-old mother’s hand, comb her hair, pick out a favorite pink nail polish, or play her favorite Perry Como tunes — that’s simply unforgivable, she says.


Like many nursing homes around Michigan, MediLodge at The Shore in Grand Haven has banned visitors because of COVID-19 concerns.

“I asked them about visitation,” Townsend told Bridge. “They aren’t going to do it. Not inside, not outside, not anything. 

“I can’t even crack her window.”

Some 32,000 Michiganders in long-term care facilities will soon enter their sixth month of being cut off from friends and families who, for the most part, are unable to visit them due to statewide coronavirus restrictions. While some facilities allow limited visits, others continue to ban visits altogether, regardless of whether the resident has the virus. It’s a painful but necessary precaution, they say, to protect residents and staff from COVID-19.

Perhaps no families are more desperate than those whose loved ones are living out their final days. Representatives of the hospice industry and the Michigan Long Term Care Ombudsman Program say some families have been turned away from nursing home doors, even as family members were dying.

Darlyn Townsend stands outside the nursing home looking at her mother, Ann Yanna, whom she has been unable to visit in person, even though Yanna is in hospice. The nursing home, like others around the state, have banned visitors as a way to guard against COVID-19 infections. (Photo courtesy of Darlyn Townsend)

Early in the pandemic, a few nursing homes briefly refused entry even to hospice nurses, according to Barry Cargill, executive director of Michigan HomeCare & Hospice Association.

“The next concern was to get family and loved ones in so they could be with that person,” he said. “It has been really hard … In many cases, families are not allowed to see their [relative]. Sometimes, they can’t even go to a window” to see them. 

“We’ve had family members who can’t visit their spouse,” said John Person, executive director of Hospice of Lansing, which runs an eight-person hospice residence and also provides care at long-term facilities. “This might be anecdotal, but my sense is that it is relatively common.”

Some facilities have begun allowing visits, empowered by the discretion offered in guidance from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on June 30, said Alison Hirschel, director of the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative.

In it, MDHHS director Robert Gordon clarified that facilities “may” — but are not required to — allow visitation in certain circumstances, such as for residents in hospice, but only if it is scheduled and social distancing and other safety measures are followed.

In March, when the new coronavirus began to devastate Michigan, a total lockdown on nursing homes made sense, Hirschel said.

“We’d never seen anything like COVID before and it was so terrifying and so devastating that it makes sense” that senior facilities focused exclusively on stopping the virus, she said.

But five months later, “we realized that the meaning of life is much fuller than just protection against infection.”

Federal guidance during the pandemic — reinforced by state orders — have left decisions up to facilities, said Lori Smetanka, executive director of the Washington-based National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, a national nonprofit that represents residents and consumers of long-term care and services.

Across the country, she said, there are reports of residents dying alone while families are barred from facilities. Some families are allowed in — but kept on time limits or limited to a single visit.

“The facilities are given all the discretion about whether [visitors] can come in, when they can come in, how long they can stay, and whether they can come back … A lot of it is almost inhumane. It’s arbitrary,” Smetanka said.

“That’s no way to establish policy and person-centered care.” 

In Michigan, the MDHHS order allows — but does not require — visits when a resident is in “serious or critical condition or in hospice care.”

As a result, facilities have varied policies on what kinds of visits they will allow, she and Cargill said.

“It’s heartbreaking to me when someone can’t see their spouse at the end of life. That’s immoral to me,” said Person of Hospice of Lansing. 

In his facility, families are asked to designate a representative for regular visits, and those visitors must abide by screening requirements, he said. Others may visit in the final days of life, he said.

There are 158 hospice programs in Michigan that provide services at homes, skilled nursing facilities and hospitals. Hospice of Lansing is among 17 such programs that also operate a stand-alone hospice facility, according to data provided by Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Early in the pandemic, Person said his agency was “more aggressive” in trying to get families into third-party facilities, “but we weren’t getting anywhere.” Confrontation simply led to more tension and less cooperation.

‘Actively dying.’

Advocates for residents in long-term care facilities say their concern goes beyond the feelings of isolation. A lack of visitors — relatives, friends, specialists — means there are no extra eyes inside a facility to make sure residents receive proper care, said Salli Pung of Michigan Long Term Care Ombudsman, whose office also has received numerous complaints.

“We are hearing that many facilities are not allowing residents enrolled in hospice to receive a visitor until they are actively dying,” she said.

Darlyn Townsend said that’s what she was told about when she could visit her mother: “like if her oxygen or blood pressure starts to change,” she said she was told. But that’s beyond the point when visits would be most helpful to her mother, said Townsend, 65, of Coopersville.

MediLodge officials declined to comment. 

Townsend said her bright-red bag — the one with the lotions and polishes and hair brush that she usually took to care for her mother, Ann Yanna — has sat unused for months. 

On July 31, she said she sat on the phone on the other side of her mother’s MediLodge window, talking with the hospice nurse at her mother’s bedside. Her mother was shaking and distraught, she said. The hospice nurse put Townsend on speaker so she could sing her Como’s “Catch a Falling Star.”

Only then, Townsend said, her mother’s body stilled.

The hospice nurse told Townsend her mother is still eating, so she wants to take her mother another slice of her favorite: key lime pie.

“There may be so little left of her and the time she has,” Townsend said. “Can I not be part of that?”

Isolation vs. infection

Long-term care facilities — as well as Michigan’s hospice residences — say they must weigh the emotional and physical price of isolation against the threat of infection that visitors pose to residents and staff.

HCR Manorcare, a large national chain with facilities in Michigan, continues to prohibit general visitation. Loved ones must schedule visits with hospice patients and staff must supervise to ensure they abide by six-foot social distancing. Visitors must wear “full airborne [personal protective equipment] for one visitor after they have passed the screening process.  Visits last 15 minutes and there can be no touching,” spokeswoman Kelly Kessler said in an email to Bridge Michigan.

MDHHS chief Gordon’s guidance in June giving facilities discretion in setting visitation rules gives facilities leeway to consider many factors in their decisions — the spread of COVID-19 in the community as well as their own supplies of personal protective equipment and ability to isolate an infected patient, said Cargill, at the state’s hospice association.

“Gordon’s orders do not ease restrictions, but simply provide the clarity to what is allowable and how long-term care facilities should be managing the excepted visits,” said Melissa Samuel, president of the Health Care Association of Michigan, HCAM, which represents hundreds of long-term care facilities.

Tom Selznick of Livonia, a long-time family doctor who specializes in geriatric medicine, said he can’t blame facilities that invoke strict visitation rules. 

Selznick has spent much of his career working with patients in long-term care. He often advises families to care for dying relatives at home when possible. That’s even more important during a pandemic, he said.

Caring for patients at home whenever possible is even more important during a pandemic, said Tom Selznick, a longtime family doctor and specialist in geriatric medicine. (Photo courtesy of Beaumont Health)

“Nursing homes are always in the hot seat. They’re being scrutinized. Facilities are concerned that all they need is one facility-acquired infection and it’s all over the news … They don’t want lawsuits and the state to come down on them.”

But social interaction is more important than even the best medicines in a person’s final days, Selznick said.

“When you’re toward the end of life and even if you have dementia, you need that family interaction. You don’t want to feel you’ve been abandoned,” he said.

That leaves industry trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t, as it sorts through a barrage of guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and local and state health departments, said Person, at Hospice of Lansing.

“Finding the best practices — we’re all struggling with that,” he said.

Representatives of the hospice industry, including those from Harbor Hospice, which cares for Townsend’s mother, say they often rely on virtual visits — cellphones or computer tablets, for example — with family members when the patient is in a nursing home which the family can’t enter. 

Still, families are “desperate, … angry, upset and scared,” said the hospice association’s Cargill.

“They’re a whole lot of people out there struggling for answers.”

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Denise Jacob
Mon, 08/10/2020 - 8:53am

My 92 year old mother has been in a nursing home for 3 1/2 years and I have not seen her since March 10. She has dementia, as do many people in nursing homes, so virtual visits are not useful. I am an RN, PhD with a background in bioethics and I understand the principles at play. Yes, we can greatly reduce Covid exposure by eliminating visitors, but at what cost? Is it more important to keep residents alive or to promote the best quality of life they can experience for their remaining days? Protection through total elimination of in person visits is clearly an effective way to reduce Covid risk but it ignores the social and emotional aspects of life which make it worth living at all for nursing home residents and for those who love them.

Tue, 08/11/2020 - 9:34am

Really, you are an RN with a PhD in bioethics and you put your mom in a nursing home?

The easy alternative is that someone with your excellent background cares for your own mother at your home, instead of shoving her elsewhere and complaining. Families need to help each other out more, instead of wanting a government or institutional fix for everything.

We are all doing the best we can under the circumstances. It's hard to believe someone like you, with your background, is being so critical without offering any solutions. Many people don't even have the choices you have.

Both my 93 year old parents are living with me where I gladly do everything for them and I'm not a nurse. I'm trying to keep them healthy and safe from people like you who don't care about spreading the virus. Prioritize your values, trust the care your mother is getting or move her to your home or elsewhere. Think a bit more about the dangers of community spread.

Mon, 08/10/2020 - 9:34am

When you have only a few weeks left to live, you’re not concerned about getting a virus. You want to be with the people you love as much as possible.

These restrictions aren’t for the good of hospice patients, who are actively dying with little time left. They’re for the staff, and especially for the business‘s bottom line.

Tue, 08/11/2020 - 9:22am

Then why blame the governor when families bring virus to the nursing homes or hospice? It's for the patients, the staff, the families, and the greater community.

Mon, 08/10/2020 - 2:00pm

It did NOT have to be this way. The situation in Michigan and across the US is this dire and dangerous precisely because the current federal administration squandered early opportunities to shut down community transmission and protect ALL of us. They preferred instead to sabotage pandemic responses prepared by the Bush and Obama administrations and to betray us all for the sake of securing political advantage. Reprehensible and deplorable don’t come anywhere close enough to characterizing this unconscionable dereliction of duty.

Mon, 08/10/2020 - 4:49pm

You're funny

Michelle M
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 9:23am

CED, I completely agree with you. Well put.

Tue, 08/11/2020 - 9:19am

"Caring for patients at home whenever possible is even more important during a pandemic, said Tom Selznick, a longtime family doctor and specialist in geriatric medicine." This doctor is absolutely correct, all the more reason why everyone must take the pandemic seriously and why schools should not meet in person. More people will have to care for loved ones with underlying conditions, like grandparents, at home. They cannot risk their children bringing home the virus. Keep the schools closed.

Jane K
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 2:00pm

My father is in a nursing home in Michigan and he is in hospice and there are 8 of us children but the facility said to pick 1 sibling and that is the only one who can see him and it can't be changed. They are not allowing a hospice nurse in either...he went into a facility when he had a mini stroke and was in rehab and then lost his house with everything in it in the Sanford Dam flood and insurance nor the State of Michigan will pay for it and he has not been able to be visited from anyone from our family from March to August he is now on his death bed. Who knows what was going on in these facilities he was shifted around to. They will now allow the one daughter in because he is on hospice. This is so awful for all of us siblings to see our father go from being an active man to his death bed in a matter of months. I think the state of Michigan should pay for this non-sense!